HC Deb 03 July 1991 vol 194 cc340-420 4.40 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to the succession, rights and responsibilities of the Crown; and for connected purposes. Proposals for constitutional reform regularly appear on the parliamentary agenda—and so they should. During my eight years and more in Parliament there have been proposals for both wide-ranging reform and more narrow proposals to reform the House of Commons or the House of Lords. But not since 1981 has there been a proposal dealing specifically with the constitutional position of the Crown, and it is that part of our constitution which I seek to address in the Bill. I do not pretend that this is necessarily the most important constitutional proposal or the most important matter on which Parliament should legislate. None the less, it seems apropriate that we should discuss it now.

There are two elements to the Bill. One is more radical than the other. One is to change the law; the other is to clarify it. The principal proposal is to change the law—specifically, the law of succession—so that females have the same opportunity as males to ascend the British throne. That would—self-evidently—not be retrospective and should not be controversial either.

My proposal follows a similar proposal in the Succession to the Crown Bill presented to the House in 1981 and supported by six hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Miss Boothroyd), who is now Madam Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway).

The Bill would amend the Act of Settlement and the Union with Scotland Act 1706 to deal with this one specific matter. As it happens, it will not affect the succession for the next two generations, so it has no implications for those currently alive and in the current line of succession to the throne. I hope that no hon. Member would, on reflection, oppose the application of the principle of equal opportunities to the top job in the land.

The second, subsidiary proposal is in a way more modest and is certainly less novel, although I accept that it has aroused more interest. It is not a proposal to change the law, only to clarify it. It relates to the liability of the Crown to pay taxes. Because this issue has aroused widespread interest, I shall dwell slightly longer on this proposal, although I stress that it is only the secondary purpose of the Bill.

In 1971, when a Select Committee of the House was examining the royal finances, the Treasury asserted: As part of the Royal Prerogative, the Queen is not liable to pay tax unless Parliament says so either explicitly or by inevitable inference. There is no distinction for this purpose between the private and public aspects of the Sovereign. From a period in the last century, in the reign of Queen Victoria, until earlier this century, the British monarchs paid tax on their personal and private wealth. Progressively, from 1910—as Philip Hall has discovered in his researches and as was explained in the "World in Action" programme last week—a series of exemptions have been negotiated and obtained. The position now is that the monarch—as monarch and as Duke of Lancaster —pays no income tax, no inheritance tax, no capital gains tax, no capital transfer tax and no investment surcharges. The heir to the throne, as Duke of Cornwall, also pays no income tax on duchy income, although duchy income was also subject to tax until earlier this century. My Bill proposes a return to the previous position. It would bring all the private and personal income and assets of the monarch and the heir to the throne within the tax system.

It is no argument against the proposal to say that it is without precedent. It is not. It is, therefore, no argument against the proposal to say that it is unconstitutional. It has long been recognised that it is a constitutional fiction, at most, that taxes in a modern parliamentary democracy such as ours are paid to the Crown. They are decided by, paid to and spent by the Government, and the monarch's income is just as capable of parliamentary regulation as that of anyone else.

I must make it clear that the Bill does not apply to the civil list, which Parliament debates and votes on, or to other moneys granted to the Crown for its public duties —such as the money that Government Departments spend on maintaining the royal palaces, yacht, aeroplanes, train and the rest. They would remain untaxed, just as they are at present. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because they raise different issues, and if we succeed in bringing in the Bill today, we shall be making progress. At another time perhaps we may be able to consider other matters as well.

I have two reasons for wanting to introduce the Bill. The first is the straightforward case for constitutional reform. The second is the desire for social, financial and constitutional justice. As the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey and as an individual, I cannot justify to people who have incomes just above the poverty line, and who pay taxes as they are required to do, the fact that the woman who, by common consent, is the richest woman in the country is exempt.

From the answers to the most precisely worded question in an opinion poll conducted by The Independent on Sunday in February, it would appear that 79 per cent. of the population support that view. I shall cite only two of the many reasons given in support of the proposal from among the letters that I have received. The first letter came from a lady in Coventry who wrote: I am 78 years of age, a widow, totally disabled, my income is £86 a week pensions, and I have to pay income tax. Why should the Queen be exempt? Another lady in West Yorkshire wrote: I am not anti-royal, but I feel it is immoral that anyone who owns as much as Her Majesty, or any member of the royal family, should be exempt from paying taxes. If we were all afforded this privilege we would have a much better standard of living. We can all say amen to that. I agree with the sentiments of the second correspondent and, like her, I am not anti-royal. But in 1991 it seems to me that a review of the position is long overdue—and that we should clarify the law and put the monarch in a private capacity in the same position as her subjects.

The Bill should be considered on its merits and, on its merits, the case for these changes seems to me to be overwhelming.

Today we are testing the parliamentary temperature for the first time in recent years. Some have said that it may be a step into hot water. My reply is that it is entirely proper for Parliament to consider the position of the monarch, as it has regularly considered the constitutional position, rights and duties of the monarch. If Parliament had not done that over the years, we should not have the constitutional democracy that we have today.

The purpose of my Bill is, therefore, to reform and modernise the monarchy, not to remove it. I—and many others who are not republicans and who think that the present monarch has done an exemplary, conscientious and admirable job—believe that none the less, on these issues, the time has come for change.

This is not a Bill motivated by the politics of envy; it is a Bill motivated by the desire for justice and for constitutional reform.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Simon Hughes and Mr. Peter Archer.

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